by Wendy Proverbs
Birch-bark basketry is a fascinating cultural practice! Prior to my research of MOA’s collection, I didn’t realize the high level of skill and ingenuity that birch-bark basketry demands. This practice developed from Indigenous peoples who saw the potential in birch-bark to create practical and aesthetically pleasing forms of material culture. To some, birch-bark basketry is not as well known or understood as cedar bark basketry. Cedar bark basketry is an outstanding form of Indigenous material culture here in BC, but so is birch-bark basketry.
This blog highlights BC Interior birch-bark basketry through the lens of a MOA intern. My journey as a researcher in this area began with a conversation between MOA curators Karen Duffek and Sue Rowley. This led to my exploration of the collection here, with the goal of expanding our knowledge base. My ancestry is Kaska-Dene and I have a strong interest in Indigenous material culture. My internship offers opportunities to contribute to ongoing research and also to give back to communities.
How to achieve these goals?
First, it was important to view the collection. MOA’s Multiversity Galleries affords a close-up view of many items, and offers opportunities to study items in its research labs. The Reciprocal Research Network (RRN) is a useful research tool that allows for comparisons among multiple museum collections (you can sign up at http://rrnpilot.org), and MOA’s entire collection can be viewed online at http://collection-online.moa.ubc.ca/. Observing the collection allowed me to see unique patterns, styles, similarities and differences among BC Interior birch-bark baskets. Yet, my observations led to further questions respecting many baskets whose origins are unknown: Who were the makers of these baskets? Whose territory did these baskets come from? How and why did the various styles develop?
Secondly, it was beneficial to review the literature on BC Interior birch-bark basketry. The literature is limited; however, an informative early ethnographic source is James Teit, and Nancy J. Turner is an excellent contemporary source. A short 1994 film Birch bark baskets highlights Secwepemc birch-bark basketry in BC. Despite the value of these sources, input from communities remains invaluable.
Lastly, it is important to seek input from members of communities where birch-bark basketry originated. These communities are typically located in the BC Interior, as Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera) is widespread throughout that region. Birch is also found to a lesser degree around the coastal mainland, but is hard to find on Vancouver Island, and is not found on Haida Gwaii. Makers of birch-bark basketry have declined over the years; however, this practice remains an integral part of many Indigenous communities where members continue to harvest and create products from this useful species.
Secwepemc artist and curator Tania Willard is a birch-bark practitioner whose work embodies a contemporary outlook. Tania’s work stems from her research of traditional forms of basketry, and is also influenced by her association with Secwepemc Elder and birch-bark basket maker Delores Purdaby. It was a pleasure meeting Tania on her recent visit to MOA, and I hope to meet her again, as well as Delores, in a future visit.
Nadleh Whut’en birch-bark practitioner Noeleen McQuary learned her skills from her granny and mother. Noeleen’s expertise has led to her teaching birch-bark courses for adults and youth in her community. Noeleen’s work can be found at MOA and in other collections. Chatting with Noeleen was very informative and I look forward to meeting her later in the year at MOA.
It would be exciting and beneficial to meet other birch-bark practitioners who may be willing to share their expertise and knowledge. Through community involvement it is possible for an exchange of ideas to flourish and aid ongoing research.
Birch-bark basketry has a long history. Ancient birch-bark rolls, perforated birch-bark, and birch-bark containers have been found in BC archaeological sites. Some notable sites where birch-bark has been excavated include the Keatley Creek site located near Lillooet, BC, and the EeRb-144 and EeRb-140 sites located near Kamloops, BC. These archaeological sites provide evidence of early Indigenous life and the cultural importance of birch-bark within these communities.
Birch bark is known as an anti-skin-cancer agent, and was used and traded as food sources, medicines, torches, clothing and construction materials within BC Indigenous communities. Ancient birch-bark baskets may be thought of as a precursor to plastic containers. However, unlike plastic containers, birch-bark baskets can be used for cooking due to the cellular makeup of birch-bark and clever, watertight construction.
This summer I have plans to travel to the BC Interior—Okanagan and Cariboo Chilcotin regions—where I hope to meet community members involved in birch-bark basketry.
I also want to visit other research institutions to view their birch-bark collections and to gain insight as to how they house and share their information.
My internship has been an enlightening experience where I have met engaging people and witnessed time-honoured practices and beauty. A humble basket has the capability of informing us today in many ways.
Your comments, queries and knowledge are welcome!